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In Contrarian Book, U.S. Professor Argues That Muslim Support For Al-Qaeda Is Only Skin-Deep

  • Christian Caryl

Still a fan? A young Pakistani boy with an image of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on his mobile phone in Karachi in 2003.

Still a fan? A young Pakistani boy with an image of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on his mobile phone in Karachi in 2003.

WASHINGTON -- Ever since New York's twin towers fell, one widespread view of the 9/11 attacks has drawn on the idea of a "clash of civilizations," a term popularized by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington. In this interpretation, Al-Qaeda's war on the West is merely part of a larger and essentially unavoidable fight between two opposed cultural realms defined by Islam and Christianity. It's basically a tale of two irreconcilable worldviews fighting to the death.

Now, just in time for the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, eminent University of North Carolina sociologist Charles Kurzman is weighing in with a contrary take. The title of his provocative new book puts it right out there: "The Missing Martyrs: Why Are There So Few Muslim Terrorists?"

Maybe, Kurzman suggests, we've been asking our questions the wrong way around.

Yes, he says, many of the terrorist attacks committed in the name of Muslims over the past 10 years have been horrific. But considering that there are more than 1 billion Muslims in the world, the number of those who have actually responded to the calls to commit attacks over the past quarter century has been tiny -- just .0001 percent of the overall Muslim population, even if you assume that as many as 100,000 of them have committed such acts.

Not 'Why So Many?' But 'Why So Few?'

In the West, we've tended to pay attention to polls suggesting broad Muslim support for terrorist goals; and it is the photos and TV footage of fanatical demonstrators preaching hatred of the West that stick in the mind.

"Normally, we ask, 'Why are there so many terrorists?' and that's a reasonable question," Kurzman says. "But the terrorists themselves are asking why there are so few. They're wondering why Muslims aren't joining them in larger numbers."

His conclusions are based on extensive study of the content on jihadi websites, where the extremist's complaints about tepid support from co-religionists far outnumber expressions of triumph.

"The levels of recruitment are nowhere near what the terrorists would like to see, and they're complaining about this lack of recruitment in their online magazines and their bulletin boards and chat groups and so on," Kurzman says.

If Muslims were really such eager terrorists, Kurzman notes, one would have to expect far more lone-wolf attacks on Western targets. As he points out in his book, if you really wanted to terrorize ordinary Americans, there would be nothing easier than sitting down in a car and plowing through a crowd on a busy street. Yet very few such attacks have actually taken place -- even though jihad websites are filled with detailed instructions on how to cause maximum casualties.

"These online recruitment materials are, in theory, available to millions and millions of people, anybody with an Internet connection," Kurzman says. "However, the number of people who've actually signed on and tried to do these kinds of do-it-yourself terrorist jobs has been relatively low."

What's more, most of the terrorist plots that have been planned in the United States have been thwarted by tips to law enforcement from the Muslim community itself -- a sign that radicalization here hasn't made anything like the inroads that some originally feared.

Uprisings A Better Guide

So what about all those expressions of pro-bin Laden sentiment that we heard about in the months after 9/11? Kurzman responds that, over the years, there has undoubtedly been a degree of rhetorical support for jihadi goals among many Muslims. Yet he argues that most of this can be diagnosed as an expression of pent-up frustrations and longing for change within the Muslim world itself. Bin Laden and other extremists, in this reading, have indeed sometimes functioned as the heroes of the powerless.

Yet Kurzman insists that we shouldn't give too much weight to these forces of vague resentment, which he dismisses -- a bit tongue-in-cheek -- as "radical sheik," the modern Muslim's equivalent of the lip service many middle-class Americans gave to radical movements during the 1960s -- even though such convictions invariably proved fairly shallow when put to the test.

"The fortunate part of it is that if we want to look at countries where there are active Islamist terrorist movements as well, is that the more violent they get, the lower their levels of support become within those populations," Kurzman says. "So as they try to polarize the population -- which is part of the terrorists' strategy to engage in mass violence in order to polarize the population to force people to choose sides -- fortunately, the side they're choosing is not the terrorists' side."

Kurzman does not, by any means, dismiss radical anger in the Muslim world. But he goes beyond some of the facile headlines to take a much closer look at what the polling numbers and opinion studies really mean.

"Terrorists are out there and their discourse is chilling. I mean, they are trying to kill us. That is the bad news," Kurzman says. "The good news is not many people are joining them. So it's not just the number of people who've been detained or killed or deterred from joining Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, but the general revulsion that we're seeing among Muslim communities towards those violent revolutionary tactics."

He says that the recent uprisings in the Middle East -- which have shown Egyptians and Tunisians taking nonviolent action to topple their own authoritarian rulers -- offer a much better guide to underlying sentiment in the region than overheated extremist talk would suggest.

"By comparison, the most popular, the hottest movements in the Middle East are the Arab Spring and these nonviolent, pro-democracy movements that seem to be capturing the imagination of so many young Muslims around the world, and that's why Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups see these movements, these popular nonviolent movements, as a threat," Kurzman says.

There will undoubtedly be many who take issue with Kurzman's conclusions. Even so, his book offers a useful antidote to many of the oversimplifications that still tend to dominate our discussion of terrorism.

"Any terrorist fatality is horrible. I'm not trying to defend or whitewash terrorism in any way, and I express my sympathies for anybody who's lost somebody to terrorism," Kurzman says. "At the same time, I hope we can be thankful that there haven't been more victims and more losses and keep that in mind as we think about the world now, 10 years after 9/11."

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